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The 'free' PC makes a comeback

Firm hopes users will watch ads for a computer

Metronomy says the free PCs will have a 56K dial-up modem and an Intel Celeron 2.4ghz processor.
Metronomy says the free PCs will have a 56K dial-up modem and an Intel Celeron 2.4ghz processor.

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LONDON, England (Reuters) -- A brand-new computer for free may sound too good to be true, but a British company is offering it to every UK household and even promising to replace it with a new machine after three years.

The catch? London-based Metronomy says in return for a free IBM personal computer worth 800 pounds ($1,400 U.S.), customers will have to bear with one minute of on-screen advertising for every 20 minutes of computer use.

Each household will also have to use the computer for at least 30 hours a month -- about an hour a day.

"What we're doing is apply the tradition of forced advertising breaks on television and radio to the home PC," said Metronomy chief executive and co-founder John Thornhill.

Thornhill, 32, who dreamt up the concept, said Metronomy was hoping some two million households would take up its offer in three years, giving it a big captive audience for advertisements.

Metronomy expects to lure computer literate people who do not own a computer.

Thornhill said many of Britain's 12 million households that now own computers may also be tempted to take up its offer, if only to own a new machine or upgrade to a more advanced one.

If successful, Metronomy's plans could raise PC penetration in Britain dramatically, but spell trouble for established UK computer retailers such as PC World, Dixons and Currys.

The business proposition is similar to the way many newspapers and television companies work, in that Metronomy hopes to cover its costs through revenues from advertising, which will be targeted to suit individual profiles.

It plans to lease the computers that will be made by International Business Machines, the world's top computer firm, with the lease underwritten by city institutions.

"We have formed alliances with the vast majority of biggest advertising groups in the world including Omnicom and Interpublic. They will be the funnel which brings in the revenues," said Thornhill.

Households getting Metronomy computers will be asked to fill up questionnaires online (www.metronomy.com) detailing family structure and preferences, all of which will sent back to the company.

Customers will then receive a compact disc each month containing advertisements to be shown over the following four weeks. The discs will need to be loaded onto the computer, and failure to do it will result in the machine getting disabled.

Advertisers can use the data for tailored campaigns. Thornhill said the advertisements will be of TV quality and will allow customers to interact directly with the advertiser.

"It's good for the families too, because they get something which is relevant to them. From the advertising point of view, this is a revolution," said Thornhill, adding that this method was better than interactive TV and cheaper than direct mailers.

"Interactive TV hasn't done as well as people hoped. People have this perception that its hard to renew your car insurance with a TV remote control. Whereas they're much more used to doing that with the keyboard," he said.

Will advertisers bite the bait? Thornhill thinks so. "We think that for advertisers, this is a much better chance of consumers taking their call to action."

Metronomy is pressing ahead with plans to start deliveries in February and March and start advertisements from April 1.

"Now and until probably the summer, we're going to put out a maximum of 200,000 [computers]. By summer we should know if it has worked. If it has, we should roll it out without any limit," he said.



Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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